Closer Encounters: Diving Deeper in St. Louis & Atlanta

Closer Encounters: Diving Deeper in St. Louis & Atlanta

This article is part of our Closer Encounters series.

My intention for this installment was to deliver my 2022 Closer Rankings 2.0. Unfortunately, the rankings update will have to wait a bit longer since our tires are still spinning in the mud with the MLB lockout. Once a collective bargaining agreement is reached, a flurry of new free-agent signings, trades and spring training developments will follow, all of which will spawn a more meaningful update.

Aside from the labor negotiations, there hasn't been much baseball news, especially as it relates to closers. Just as we were getting used to closer chaos, things have pretty stagnant the last three months. Rosters and relief roles haven't changed, so the order in which closers are being drafted has been fairly steady. 

Jordan Romano, RP, Blue Jays - I recently reviewed NFBC closer ADP for February drafts and only Romano made a decent jump, vaulting Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith and Kenley Jansen as the seventh closer drafted by his RotoWire Online Championship ADP (77.3). In Draft Champions leagues (draft and hold), Romano was still behind that trio as the 10th closer drafted on average (72.3). With his role still somewhat in question given the uncertainty of Toronto's post-lockout plans, it makes sense that he's slightly more appealing in leagues where in-season FAAB/waiver pickups are allowed — thus being able to correct any potential draft mistakes. For what it's worth, I'm still confident Romano will be a dominant closer for the Blue Jays in 2022. Of the top 20 closers by ADP,

My intention for this installment was to deliver my 2022 Closer Rankings 2.0. Unfortunately, the rankings update will have to wait a bit longer since our tires are still spinning in the mud with the MLB lockout. Once a collective bargaining agreement is reached, a flurry of new free-agent signings, trades and spring training developments will follow, all of which will spawn a more meaningful update.

Aside from the labor negotiations, there hasn't been much baseball news, especially as it relates to closers. Just as we were getting used to closer chaos, things have pretty stagnant the last three months. Rosters and relief roles haven't changed, so the order in which closers are being drafted has been fairly steady. 

Jordan Romano, RP, Blue Jays - I recently reviewed NFBC closer ADP for February drafts and only Romano made a decent jump, vaulting Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith and Kenley Jansen as the seventh closer drafted by his RotoWire Online Championship ADP (77.3). In Draft Champions leagues (draft and hold), Romano was still behind that trio as the 10th closer drafted on average (72.3). With his role still somewhat in question given the uncertainty of Toronto's post-lockout plans, it makes sense that he's slightly more appealing in leagues where in-season FAAB/waiver pickups are allowed — thus being able to correct any potential draft mistakes. For what it's worth, I'm still confident Romano will be a dominant closer for the Blue Jays in 2022. Of the top 20 closers by ADP, he's the one I have the most player shares of in drafts thus far (5/16).

Giovanny Gallegos, RP, Cardinals - The draft hype surrounding Gallegos was red-hot a few months ago after the 30-year-old racked up a league-high 12 saves for the Cardinals from Aug. 30 to the end of the season. After two seasons establishing himself as St. Louis' best reliever and occupying a setup role for the first half of 2021, he finally got the opportunity to be the team's primary closer. However, those drafting Gallegos around his February NFBC ADP (84.2 in Draft Champions, 98.3 in Online Championship) might consider pumping the brakes. Colleague Jeff Zimmerman refers to a recent mailbag from Katie Woo of The Athletic in his latest Mining the News on FanGraphs, indicating St. Louis is unlikely to name a closer until it completes its bullpen. After the lockout, the Cardinals are expected to add one more reliever with experience in various roles, and there are plenty free agents available that fit their liking.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch listed several candidates and a common trait was a historically high groundball rate, which makes sense given the Cardinals' excellent defense. Joe Kelly (career 51.1 percent groundball rate) could return to St. Louis where he began his career as starter in 2012, while Andrew Chafin (49.6 percent) and Archie Bradley (48.7 percent) are sensible targets as well. Ryan Tepera (44.1 percent) doesn't induce as many grounders as the others, but the Cardinals have expressed interest due to his high leverage experience.

While we have yet to hear much from new manager Oli Marmol, if we have learned anything from St. Louis' bullpen usage in recent seasons, it's that reliever roles can and should be expected to change throughout the year. Keep in mind no pitcher on the Cardinals has recorded 30-plus saves in a season since Trevor Rosenthal racked up 48 in 2015:

YearSTL Saves Leader2nd in Saves
2021Alex Reyes (29)Giovanny Gallegos (14)
2020Giovanny Gallegos (4)Andrew Miller (4)
2019Carlos Martinez (24)Jordan Hicks (14)
2018Bud Norris (28)Jordan Hicks (6)
2017Seunghwan Oh (20)Trevor Rosenthal (11)
2016Seunghwan Oh (19)Trevor Rosenthal (14)

In four of the last six seasons, multiple relievers have recorded double-digit saves for the Cardinals. Most recently, Alex Reyes was an All-Star closer in the first half of 2021, then transitioned to a leverage option in the final month. Both he and former closer Jordan Hicks have been rumored to join the starting rotation, but I would not count out either as options to close games in 2022. Ryan Helsley also throws 97 mph and could return to the late-inning mix after dealing with elbow and knee injuries last year.

Does this mean you should cross Gallegos off your draft board? No. I still think he's the favorite to lead the Cardinals in saves in 2022. I have Gallegos projected for 25 saves, which is probably the most we should expect from him. Between Reyes, Hicks and free-agent TBD, there are numerous threats who likely will impact the number of save chances he receives.

Will Smith, RP, Braves - I recently heard The Athletics' Derek Van Riper and Eno Sarris discuss Stuff+ on Rates & Barrels during their 2022 Relief Pitcher Preview. Admittedly, I am new to this metric, but my understanding is that it looks at the characteristics of individual pitches in a player's arsenal to measure the overall quality of their "stuff." While I'm eager to dig deeper and learn more about how Stuff+ can be leveraged for player projections and rankings, one thing in particular caught my attention during Derek and Eno's conversation with respect to Smith. Sarris noted that Smith is one of only four closers with below-average stuff, while his "Night Shift" cohorts in Atlanta's bullpen — Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and A.J. Minter — rank significantly better by the metric.

While I'm encouraged by manager Brian Snitker's commitment to Smith last season despite his awfully high 1.5 HR/9, it's worth noting that he has split Atlanta's closer role in the past, as recently as 2019:

YearAtlanta's Closer (Saves / Team Save Share %)
2021Will Smith (37 / 92.5%)
2020Mark Melancon (11 / 84.7%)
2019Luke Jackson (18 / 40.9% ), Mark Melancon (11 / 25%), A.J. Minter (5 / 11.4%)
2018Arodys Vizcaino (16 / 40%), A.J. Minter (15 / 37.5%)
2017Jim Johnson (22 / 61.1%), Arodys Vizcaino (14 / 38.9%)

I expressed confidence in Smith's role as the Braves closer during Jeff Erickson and Fred Zinkie's LABR-cast, but I might proceed with caution in drafts. I'm still open to drafting Smith for saves, but  likely will limit my exposure to FAAB/waiver leagues rather than DnH formats.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Rufe
Ryan manages the MLB Closer Grid and authors 'Closer Encounters'. He also contributes to the MLB draft kit and has been helping RotoWire subscribers through our 'Ask An Expert' feature since 2014. He's an NFBC enthusiast.
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